People and populations at risk




Poverty and hunger frequently go together. This Brazilian family has only a small tent to sleep in. All their other activities, including cooking and eating, are done outside.

Average diets in many of the poorest countries barely reach 2000 calories a day.

Between 1980 and 1985, drought affected around 150 million people in Africa. This nomad waits for an air-drop of food aid in drought-stricken Chad.

In the world as a whole, an average of about 2 700 calories of food is available per person per day - enough to meet everyone's energy requirements. But food is neither produced nor distributed equally. Some countries produce more food than others, while distribution systems and family incomes determine access to food. An FAO survey in the mid-1980s discovered that average diets in many of the poorest countries were 2 100 calories a day.

Poor health greatly increases the risk of malnutrition. Infection can increase the body's requirements for energy and various nutrients, but limit the consumption of food and the absorption of nutrients.

In recent decades, health and nutritional status have improved considerably, but are still far from satisfactory in many countries.


Gross national product and food security

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Rural-urban poverty indicators

Source: UNDP, 1994

Percentages of rural and urban populations living in absolute poverty or lacking access to essential services in the 45 least-developed countries

Rural and urban poor

Poverty is a prime cause of hunger and malnutrition. In many rural areas, protein-energy malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are most common among the landless poor and such isolated groups as pastoral nomads and small fishing communities. Inefficient production and lack of access to credit, seeds, fertilizers, extension services and marketing channels can all limit food production.

The rural poor often go hungry in the period just before harvest time when food is scarce. The urban poor are less likely to starve, but inadequate diets, unhealthy lifestyles and overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions make them prone to infection and all forms of malnutrition.

Drought and flood-prone populations

People in drought-prone areas live under a continuous threat of hunger and malnutrition. Droughts in Africa during the 1980s forced 10 million farmers to abandon their land; over 1 million died. The impact of the drought was exaggerated in Ethiopia by government policies which reduced the reserves of food grains held on farms. The cost in lives would have been far greater but for the mobilization of food aid by the international community.

Worldwide, the population affected by floods rose from 5.2 million in the 1960s to 15.4 million in the 1970s. The developing world is particularly affected; in India alone deaths from floods were 14 times greater in the 1980s than the 1950s and the area affected grew from 25 to 40 million hectares.


Global refugees

Global refugee statistics, 1994 (Percentages)

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Total number of concern to UNHCR: 27.5 million; including 18.5 million refugees, 5.5 million internally displaced persons, and 3.5 million others. Source: UNHCR

There are now over 24 million refugees and displaced persons globally. They often receive just enough food to live, and their diets often lack the micronutrients needed to prevent debilitating diseases such as scurvy and beri-beri.


Many women work longer hours than men but, because of their status, receive less food. Girls may be underprivileged from birth and destined for a heavy work load, poor diet, early marriage and many closely spaced pregnancies. Anaemia is particularly common among women. Malnourished women are likely to have low birth-weight babies, many of whom die in infancy.


Poor families' children may be at risk from a host of debilitating or fatal diseases brought on by unsanitary conditions and inadequate care and feeding. Infection can push children from a state of marginal undernourishment to one of acute malnutrition. The children may also have to work long hours at menial jobs to supplement the family's meagre income, further endangering their development, education and health.

The elderly

People who are old and infirm are increasingly at risk as populations age in developed countries and longevity, but not necessarily health, improves in the developing world. The breakdown of the extended family system and the absence of social services often leave them without care or support.

AIDS sufferers

In the developing world, where AIDS affects men and women equally, the syndrome reduces people's capacity to produce or obtain food and the ability of parents to care for their children. Children of parents with HIV may be infected in the womb and die young, while those spared infection are destined to join the world's 30 million or so orphans.


Africa in context

Drinking water
Population without access to safe drinking water, 1990
Source: WHO, 1992
Population without access to sanitation services, 1990
Source: WHO, 1992
Number of drought years experienced by each country, 1980-91
Boundary of Eritrea, formed since 1991, is shown in grey
Source: USOFDA, 1991
Africa is more vulnerable to calamity than other continents. Its soils are generally poor, its climate fickle and its infrastructure weak. Despite these handicaps, Africa tries to feed a population that is growing faster than that of any other region. Unfortunately, African farmers are not keeping up and food production per caput continues to decline.


World per caput food production
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Number of persons chronically undernourished
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The spectre of famine

Famines have afflicted humanity since the dawn of time: the earliest known written record dates from Egypt in 3500 BC. Two famines swept over India in 1702-04 and 1769-70, together killing 5 million people. The worst famine on record in 1876-79 claimed between 9 and 13 million lives in China.

Famines are caused by human factors such as war, and ethnic, religious and tribal conflicts, as well as by adverse weather and other natural hazards, including volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Poor people are generally much more vulnerable to such disasters than the rich, and are much less able to respond to them.

Little progress has been made in preventing the causes of famine - the number of major disasters increased four-fold between the 1960s and 1980s - but the international donor community has become better at preventing them turning into catastrophes. Between 1980 and 1985, for example, drought, aggravated by widespread land degradation, affected 21 countries and around 150 million people in Africa: but a US$ 1000 million emergency aid programme coordinated by the United Nations and its agencies saved millions of lives.

Most developing countries now have plans to cope with natural emergencies. Bangladesh, for instance, has an elaborate early warning system for tracking cyclones arriving in the Bay of Bengal. It has also set up emergency cyclone shelters and food distribution centres.

Some communities are also taking effective preventative action. After a series of devastating droughts in the 1980s, the community of Kibwezi in Kenya, helped by the African Medical and Research Foundation, introduced drought-resistant crops, increased the number of farmed rabbits and domestic fowl, set up tree nurseries and developed energy-saving stoves. Water tanks were constructed and women's groups were helped to initiate and manage activities to generate income. Droughts still threaten the land, but the people of Kibwezi are now better able to cope with them.